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The sacred act of eating Print
Guest column
Thursday, Jul. 29, 2010 -- 12:00 AM

Guest Column

Our sacred scriptural traditions convey the message that we humans were created by a loving Creator-God and assigned the mission to prosper, to steward all the resources of the planet, and to subdue, or cultivate the earth. And God has said he will provide food for our subsistence.

Bishop Giampaola Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has recently written, " . . . People's fundamental orientation toward the created world should be one of gratitude and thankfulness. The world, in fact, leads people back to the mystery of God who has created it and continues to sustain it. If God is forgotten, nature is emptied of its deepest meaning and left impoverished."

The consumer mentality

When we are so blind in our daily busyness to our relationship with our Creator and in our relationships with one another, and no longer seek to sense the sacredness of nature, we have become malnourished people with unquenchable appetites for the "filler" of our culture.

When we move from our vocations as good stewards of the earth, the gardeners and farmers who co-create with the Almighty Creator, and become simply "consumers," we fall from the Sacred Act of Growing (subduing/cultivating), which naturally extends to the Sacred Act of Eating, and are left broken people conducting only a profane act of consuming.

And as one becomes only a consumer, one becomes confused and separated from the great divine mystery and our need as faithful people to be filled with gratitude and thankfulness for the opportunity to work as co-creators with our God and for the gifts that that collaboration provides in nurturing each human life to its fullest potential.

Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines consuming (to consume) as: to destroy or use up, to eat or drink up, to devour, and to spend wastefully. The act of consuming contains no seedbed for regeneration of what has been lost or devoured -- consuming fills no void but only leaves a bigger hole in the whole.

Reflecting on food

But how, we might ask, as overly busy consumers can we move to a more consciously awakened state of wonder and mystery, reflecting on the food we eat and how and where it comes from, and of equal importance, who grew the food we eat and were they treated with justice and dignity for their labor?

The three western faith traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all share the scriptural roots of the Creator's call to humankind to "multiply and fill the earth."

In the Genesis story of Abraham in the oak grove at Mamre, we are given the model of civility and compassion to our human family as the patriarch of our three faith traditions reaches out in hospitality to three strangers crossing the desert waste on a hot summer afternoon.

The fatted calf was slaughtered, flour was mixed and pounded into pancakes with fresh milk, and cheese was served in great kindness by Abraham and his wife Sarah. And as is often demonstrated to those who unselfishly serve others in kindness, the return "gift" was both unexpected and fulfilling beyond anything they had done or offered.

Collaboration with the Creator

Humankind's work on the land becomes sacred by collaboration with the Creator, understanding the tenuous relationship between human want and our tender care as stewards of the earth's resources we have been so blessed with.

Our act of justly compensating those who grow our food leads to the act of preparing our food for those we care for -- a sacred process in itself. This grand culmination of the farmer's efforts and the labor in the kitchen leads to the ultimate act of communion through the sharing of our meal and the stories of our day with those we love.

Thus the circle of life through the agricultural process leads those who prepare and those who partake of the meal to a continuance of the co-creation, celebrated through the hospitality and relationships nurtured through the act of eating together.

With gratitude and thankfulness to all who provide, especially our Creator, we allow the growing and harvesting, the buying and preparing, and the serving and enjoying of our food and family to be loving and sacred acts -- purposeful and nurturing.

When we don't consider those who labor in the fields or the kitchen, we are left unsatisfied and under-nourished, physically, mentally, and especially spiritually. We then become simply consumers of other's labors, falling away from the communion with others, alone in ourselves.

From fast-food to real food

We must move from a fast-food mentality of simply filling our growling guts, alone, at our workplace, in our car, separated from others in an act of solo-consuming that fosters no community and rarely satisfies our appetites.

As consumers we are continuously reminded that fast-food is neither fast nor even food, with so many artificial additives turning "real food" into a food by-product.

Consuming is one-dimensional as it supports and quasi-nourishes only the individual consumer, returning little to the soil of the earth that has fed the world (unless we include the Styrofoam and plastic utensils not breaking down in our landfills).

Writer/farmer Wendell Berry speaks of our need to seek the sacred over the profane when he wrote, "To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want."

Tom Nelson is the coordinator of the Rural Life Office for Catholic Charities of Madison.